Grand Slam Six Nations champions Wales head to Japan with uncertainty

Losing No 1 spot, injuries to major players and concussion woes… Grand Slam Six Nations champions Wales head to Japan with uncertainty

  • Wales have not had the best summer of preparation before a World Cup event 
  • Up to No 1 in the world rankings they dropped to fifth after consecutive losses
  • Taulupe Faletau, who broke his collarbone, and Gareth Anscombe are ruled out
  • Rhys Patchell must now step up despite suffering badly with head-knocks

Three defeats from four, two major injuries to starting players and a concussion cloud hanging over a third – it might seem like this has been a summer of discontent for Wales.

The Grand Slam Six Nations champions, who went into the last month of warm-up fixtures ahead of the World Cup unbeaten in 14 Tests, have had a strange time.

Briefly up to No 1 in the world rankings, now back down to fifth after two consecutive defeats to the Irish they go to Japan without the momentum of form – if you read a lot into the results of these preparatory fixtures.

Wales head coach Warren Gatland has endured a very testing summer with his side

They will fly on Wednesday without Taulupe Faletau, who broke his collarbone in training, and Gareth Anscombe, who ruptured the cruciate ligament in his knee against England at Twickenham.

That latter blow makes the latest concern more worrying. Rhys Patchell, the 26-year-old back-up to Dan Biggar who now must start the big games with Anscombe out, took a nasty bang to the head against Ireland.

Trampled by Irish back-rower CJ Stander he suffered a fourth concussion in 18 months, which for any athlete is tricky territory and spreads further unease when it comes to Patchell as he has suffered badly with head-knocks recently.

Wales have lost Gareth Anscombe who ruptured cruciate ligaments in his knee vs England

Last week when picked in Wales 31-man squad ahead of Jarrod Evans he spoke candidly about his concussion nightmares last season, where two blows – which he described as horrible ‘invisible’ injuries left him struggling for half the season.

‘It took six months before I started feeling like myself again on the field,’ he noted when speaking before this latest hit.

So Wales must, and will, take the utmost of care of him.

On Sunday night the deadline to alter squads before the World Cup passed. Patchell was included in the 31, Wales are not concerned about him and will take the fly-half to the World Cup.

Patchell will now be assessed by the Welsh medical team before Wednesday’s departure date, and will go through the usual ‘return to play’ protocols which aim to gradually build a player back into full exercise and then contact, checking them throughout that process. Independent doctors will be on hand at the World Cup too.

If alterations are required now any player replaced must be ruled out of the tournament entirely. They cannot return if their injury heals in time for latter matches, and the incoming player must wait for 48 hours before they can play in a tournament match.

This is where having just two specialist fly-halves in the squad is a risk. Warren Gatland has hinted that Leigh Halfpenny or Liam Williams could cover No 10 as a last resort, but that would be a nightmare scenario with neither having any professional experience in that position.

Briefly world No 1, Wales are down to fifth after two consecutive defeats to the Irish

Luckily Wales play the final match of the first round of Pool fixtures at the tournament – on Monday September 23 against Georgia – so Patchell has ample time to recover if his head-knock is not as bad as previous ones.

If there are lingering concerns about his fitness, Gatland is not concerned however about the recent defeats.

Ireland went No 1 in the ever-changing world rankings thanks to a physically dominant performance that saw them revert to type and score close-range tries through Rob Kearney, James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong. Wales only took a Halfpenny penalty and a Hadleigh Parkes score.

But Gatland was upbeat about the summer’s work – although warned his side not to repeat this performance in Japan.

‘I’m generally pretty pleased,’ he said.

‘We didn’t really want to get into a fight, that sort of game.

‘Ireland have given Georgia a template of how to play against us.

‘It’s difficult to stop a team like that, when they’re good at the breakdown and got collision dominance. They choked us to death.’ Wales will improve enormously once teams pull the cards away from their chests.

As Aaron Wainwright, the 21-year-old flanker, noted it is preferable to lose now than in two weeks.

‘It’s better to get these games out of the way now than in Japan,’ he said.

‘When we get on the plane we’ll be putting this all behind us and concentrate on our pool games. Georgia first up is massive.’ As is the coming autumn, where the dragons of Wales will be a different beast.

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